Japan delivers aid to Marshall Islands, as Pacific engagement builds bulwark against Chinese influence
- The brief visit to Majuro marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two governments
- The Japanese government is advocating a policy of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including freedom of navigation
A transport aircraft of Japan’s Air Self-Defence Forces (ASDF) touched down in the Marshall Islands en route to joint exercises in the US on Friday, delivering wheelchairs, sporting equipment and other aid to the central Pacific nation.
The brief visit to Majuro marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two governments, but was also the first time an ASDF aircraft has stopped on its way to military manoeuvres in the US to carry out “cultural exchanges” in a third country, a source told the Yomiuri newspaper. Some analysts suggested an ulterior motive.
A single C-130 Hercules transport aircraft has a relatively limited payload, they said, but the visit was “clearly part of the new strategic approach” put forward by the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to increase engagement with nations in the Asia-Pacific region and limit China’s efforts to expand its sphere of influence.
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“It is clear that it will serve to improve Japan’s image in the Marshalls and provide a degree of counterbalance to Beijing’s growing presence and influence,” said Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunkyo University, in Saitama Prefecture.
“China has tended to go in big, hard and fast and has made huge promises of aid to countries like the Maldives, Vanuatu and Sri Lanka,” he said, although those countries are now realising the scale of the debt they owe Beijing and the scale of influence China can exert if they fail to keep up with repayments.
“It follows that the strategic approach the Abe administration has put forward will include the continuation of aid but with broader aims, such as upgrading airbases and port facilities,” Mulloy said.
The Japanese government is advocating a policy of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including freedom of navigation, and the Yomiuri reported that ASDF aircraft were expected to follow in the wake of vessels from the Maritime Self-Defence Forces (MSDF) and pay visits to nations in Southeast Asia.
MSDF vessels and ships from the Japan Coast Guard have already paid port visits to a number of cities in the region this year and Tokyo has provided patrol ships to Indonesia and training aircraft to both the Philippines and Indonesia. Both governments are opposed to China’s unilateral occupation of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and the drawing of Beijing’s maritime boundaries well beyond what Manila and Jakarta deem acceptable.
There have also been reports Japan plans to give a number of its retired PC-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Vietnam and the Philippines.
The ASDF is also scheduled to take part in Operation Christmas Drop later this month, in which transport aircraft airdrop food and other relief goods to remote parts of Micronesia and Palau.
Significantly, Palau and the Marshall Islands have retained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which some analysts have suggested might offer Beijing leverage if it can offer large amounts of aid and infrastructure assistance.
As a result, Washington will welcome Japan playing a bigger role in the central Pacific, Mulloy said.
“The US wants its allies and partners in the region to do more to ensure freedom of navigation and limit Chinese efforts to increase their influence,” he said.